The opening shot of Sheng Qiu’s feature-length directorial debut Suburban Birds subtly gives hints at the movie’s reality-bending ways. Structural engineer Hao (Mason Lee) steps into the frame and looking directly at the camera. As he seems to be waving his hands around, revealing that the lens is a viewfinder for a device his team is using on their latest job. Hao and his colleagues are checking into what caused a suburb’s ruinous state, to determine if the ground is suitable for a new subway system.
While investigating a dilapidated school building, Hao finds a journal that chronicles school child Xiahao’s (Zihan Gong) hike through the woods with a group of friends. As the pre-teens venture deeper into the forest, they begin to disappear from one another. As Hao, which is the shortened form of Xiahao, reads further, he finds a foreboding prophecy about the kids and his co-workers. Hao is having disagreements over what the findings mean. As his work continues and Hao reads further into the diary, the film bounces between these two stories.
“…finds a journal that chronicles school child Xiahao’s hike through the woods with a group of friends. As the pre-teens venture deeper into the forest, they begin to disappear…”
While that may sound like Suburban Birds tells a straightforward parallel narrative, Qiu, working from his own script, doesn’t make things so simple. The relationship between Hao’s present day life and Xiahao’s outing in the woods is up for debate. Is it Hao remembering his childhood in the once thriving neighborhood? Is it just a tale of two similarly named people that are having issues with those closest to them?
The frustrations of the movie don’t lie in the ambiguous connection between its two leads. The issue is that virtually nothing of note happens in Hao’s story. The audience is given the barest explanations for the survey team’s expedition, and Hao’s main character trait is that he exists. This creates a meandering slog of a narrative every time the film cuts back to Hao. It is not engaging and the intentionally choppy editing, attempting to add to the uncertainty of perception that Qiu is so fond of exploring, makes this half of the Suburban Birds poorly executed.
The other section, set before the suburb crumbled – technically before the suburb was finished – is much more spirited. At school, Xiahao’s teacher asks the class to draw what they think this new neighbor will look like. The audience is then treated to a handful of these illustrations. This juxtaposes well with the outing in the woods and makes one wistful, as the forest will be cut down for this real estate development.
“…Xiahao has no easy answers for how or why his friends vanish during their hike.”
Adding further emotional honesty is the youthful idea of being friends with your schoolmates forever is dispelled in a heartfelt, somber, yet not tragic way. Xiahao has no easy answers for how or why his friends vanish during their hike. Sometimes, friendships fizzle out due to no discernible reason, just like how the woods made way for the suburb which now lies in ruins. It is an interesting concept to explore, but again, only one half of the story ably does so.
Suburban Birds does feature a great cast, as despite having nothing to work with, Mason Lee is a compelling presence as the structural engineer. While he is not able to overcome the fact that the screenplay gives him nothing to work with, he remains a dramatic performer and sells the pondering intrigue of his character the best he’s able. Zihan Gong is outstanding as the younger Xiahao (who may or may not be Lee’s character as a child), and his reactions to his friends peeling away from the outing are genuine and sincere.
Suburban Birds runs right around two-hours, though it feels much longer. At least 40 minutes could be cut, all from Hao’s vantage point, to make the audience at least think something could actually start to happen. As it stands now though, the acting is good, but the narrative moves like molasses, leaving the audience at a distance. Since Qiu won’t directly tell the audience the connection between the two stories, the broader statement of youthful idealism versus adulthood realities gets lost due to tedious boredom.
Suburban Birds (2019) Directed by Sheng Qui. Written by Sheng Qui. Starring Mason Lee, Zihan Gong, Lu Huang. Suburban Birds screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
3 out of 10 Journals